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Fleshing Out America

Race, Gender, and the Politics of the Body in American Literature, 1833-1879

Carolyn Sorisio

Publication Year: 2002

Can we work through the imaginative space of literature to combat the divisive nature of the politics of the body? That is the central question asked of the writings Carolyn Sorisio investigates in Fleshing Out America. The first half of the nineteenth century ushered in an era of powerful scientific and quasi-scientific disciplines that assumed innate differences between the "types" of humankind. Some proponents of slavery and Indian Removal, as well as opponents of women's rights, supplanted the Declaration of Independence's higher law of inborn equality with a new set of "laws" proclaiming the physical inferiority of women, "Negroes," and "Aboriginals."

Fleshing Out America explores the representation of the body in the work of seven authors, all of whom were involved with their era's reform movements: Lydia Maria Child, Frances E. W. Harper, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, Harriet Jacobs, and Martin R. Delany. For such American writers, who connected the individual body symbolically with the body politic, the new science was fraught with possibility and peril. Covering topics from representation, spectatorship, and essentialism to difference, power, and authority, Carolyn Sorisio places these writers' works in historical context and in relation to contemporary theories of corporeality. She shows how these authors struggled, in diverse and divergent ways, to flesh out America--to define, even defend, the nation's body in a tumultuous period.

Drawing on Euro- and African American authors of both genders who are notable for their aesthetic and political differences, Fleshing Out America demonstrates the surprisingly diverse literary conversation taking place as American authors attempted to reshape the politics of the body, which shaped the politics of the time.

Published by: University of Georgia Press


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pp. ix-x

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Introduction: Remapping the Nineteenth-Century Literary Landscape

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pp. 1-13

When the escaped slave Harriet Jacobs received a letter from her owner's family attempting to trick her into returning to the South, she recognized the snare and commented: "Verily, he relied too much on 'the stupidity of the African race." Published in 1861, Jacobs's remark may just as...

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1. The Body in the Body Politic: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century America

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pp. 14-46

In 1854, Frederick Douglass stood before the Literary Societies of Western Reserve College. The first African American to speak at a commencement ceremony for an American institution of higher education, the former slave and cur- rent author, editor, and lecturer had been invited by the graduating class. ...

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2. The Spectacle of the Body: Corporeality in Lydia Maria Child's Antislavery Writing

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pp. 47-78

To those familiar with Lydia Maria Child's commitment to social progress, her claim in An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans that "the opinion of the world" will not be of interest to her as long as her writing can be "abroad on its mission of humanity" sounds sincere.1 ...

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3. Deflecting the Public's Gaze and Disciplining Desire: Harper's Antebellum Poetry and Reconstruction Fiction

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pp. 79-103

In 1853, when Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was twenty-eight years old, her home state of Maryland passed a law preventing free people of color from entering it, with imprisonment and sale into slavery the punishment fortransgression. When one man broke the law, he was forced...

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4. Saxons and Slavery: Corporeal Challenges to Ralph Waldo Emerson's Republic of the Spirit

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pp. 104-142

In the spring of 1832, the twenty-eight-year-old Ralph Waldo Emerson took his daily walk to visit the grave of his first wife, Ellen. Known for her beauty and intelligence, she had died more than a year earlier after a prolonged case of tuberculosis. Her death devastated Emerson. ...

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5. The New Face of Empire: The Price of Margaret Fuller's Progressive Feminist Project

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pp. 143-172

We can wonder if, when commenting disparagingly on Americans7 "wolfish" energy, Fuller intended to challenge Emerson, who prefaced "Self-Reliance" with the above poem. Published just two years prior to "The Great Lawsuit," Emerson's essay functions as the quintessential call...

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6. "Who Need Be Afraid of the Merge?": Whitman's Radical Promise and the Perils of Seduction

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pp. 173-201

"Who need be afraid of the merge?" Walt Whitman dares readers in the debut edition of "Song of Myself" (1.136).l Indeed, the rest of Leaves of Grass (1855) seems to repeat, "Who?" For Whitman, the "merge" is an all-encompassing force, blending sexuality with politics, philosophy...

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7. "Never Before Had My Puny Arm Felt Half So Strong": Corporeality and Transcendence in Jacobs's Incidents

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pp. 202-225

On a "lovely spring morning" that mocks her sadness, the young, beautiful slave Linda Brent is accosted by her master, who scathes her ears with "stinging, scorching, words" designed to corrupt her mind and hasten her deliverance into his licentious grip. ...

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Epilogue: Martin R. Delany and the Politics of Ethnology

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pp. 226-239

In chapter 7 I suggest that Harriet Jacobs's dual strategy for negotiating the precarious body politics that dominated her age was to carve a literary space for her transcendent, disembodied will and to reverse the gaze of spectatorship, to become a "peeper" who unmasks the men of...


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pp. 241-271

Works Cited

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pp. 273-285


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pp. 287-299

E-ISBN-13: 9780820326375
E-ISBN-10: 0820326372
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820323572
Print-ISBN-10: 0820323578

Page Count: 300
Publication Year: 2002

OCLC Number: 53979189
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Fleshing Out America

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Race in literature -- Congresses.
  • Sex role in literature
  • Politics and literature -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Human body in literature.
  • American literature -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
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